The story of a noble tree.
If you’re like me, your first encounter with a fig was on TV. Yes, I am talking about the ’70s Fig Newton commercial, starring the loveable Big Fig, a guy in a green fig outfit, wearing mascara and elf shoes, who wants to show us “that great new dance: the Newton.” You remember: “Hit it, Hal! ’Ewy gooey, rich and chewy inside; golden, flaky, tender, cakey outside ...” The routine concludes with “the tricky part,” as Big Fig leans forward on one foot, holding the cookies aloft and crooning, “the Big Fig Newtoooon!”
In fact, Fig Newtons, which have been made commercially since 1892, were my favorite (non-homemade) cookie for a while, sometime after Nilla Wafers and before Oreos.
It was several decades before I tasted and fell in love with the fresh fig. It was a hot day in an arid part of France. My family and I had been hiking all morning when we noticed the boughs of a fig tree hanging over a stone wall. They were laden with plump, purple fruit and close enough to the lane that we deemed them to be communal property. They were red inside, sweet, juicy and cool. Ooh, la la.
About 10 years ago, I planted my own fig trees. Before that, I had no idea a fig tree could even grow in Virginia. I thought of figs as biblical fruit—the fig leaf post-Eden and all—and had a vague notion that they grew in oases in the desert.
Then my friend Panos Midis offered me a sapling from his family’s tree, from hardy stock that had voyaged, like the family, across the Atlantic from the cradle of democracy, or so I imagined. Panos tells me that his family has had the tree for many decades, and no one now remembers where it came from. The Midis family is Old World shrewd, tough and loyal: four dark-haired sons of wry wit, fiery temper, and (usually) long memory.
I was honored by the gift and planted the tree at the southeast corner of my house where it could bask in the sun and be protected from the occasional arctic northwest winter blast.
Not a week after I planted the sapling, Rosie, our new puppy, a Hurricane Katrina refugee from Gulfport, Mississippi, chewed it in half. Distraught at this desecration and the offense to my friend’s family, I scolded her, but only half-heartedly, since she had so recently been traumatized by all that bad weather, and then I did what any good Southerner might do. I went into the house and got a roll of duct tape.
As I wound it around the stem, my wife Jessica laughed at me and said it would never work. I guess deep down I knew she was right, but I couldn’t bear the thought that the tree’s noble lineage (real or imagined) might come to such an ignominious end under my watch.
There the fig sapling languished all winter, brown and forlorn. Finally, one spring day I decided I couldn’t look at it any longer. I yanked it out of the ground, and as I did, to my horror, I saw two green sprouts at the base of the tree. Now I had killed the same tree twice. I hurriedly shoved it back into the hole and patted dirt over its roots.
Eight years later, my Midis fig tree is seven feet tall, heavy with foliage, and has just produced its first bumper crop of figs. It sits side by side with another fig tree of more pedestrian lineage (I bought it from a nursery).
Apparently, these trees like Virginia soil, sunshine and humidity. Each day in late summer, I wander out back and pluck fresh figs, a dozen or more at a time. At least I did, until one day a few years ago when my arms broke out in an ugly red rash. I itched and burned and Googled, until I found out about “phytophotodermatitis.” It’s not just the longest word you will say today; it’s a wicked, poison-ivy-like rash that occurs when the resin of the fig leaf, your skin and sunlight come together in a chemical fiasco that will teach you to better respect, if not downright fear, your fig tree.Birds, it seems, do not suffer from phytophotodermatitis. I have counted half a dozen on the Midis tree at once, some of them stubbornly immune to my shouting.“
I’m hooked on an abundant supply now!” Jessica says. Fig salads, roasted figs and fig clafoutis abound in my house. Her latest creation: a tart of figs layered on a paste of ground hazelnuts and fig preserves.
I think I’ll keep picking figs. If you can’t find me any time from dusk to dawn, I’m probably out back, reaching for another limb.